A giant warehouse turned into a hub for arts and crafts sellers, the Almacenes San Jose is a wonderful place to do most of your souvenir shopping in Havana. It’s a little bit away from the center of Old Havana, but it’s a lovely walk down Paula Avenue or a good excuse to ride a CocoTaxi or a rickshaw. Access to the market is free, and inside, dozens of stands distributed along long aisles have hundreds of products on display, from original paintings, photographs, and sculptures, hand-made clothes and bags to all kinds of tiny trinkets. There are also food stands, although to a lesser extent, and an outdoor area where you can enjoy the view of the bay.
Obispo is one of the busiest boulevards in Havana, and the main artery of the old quarter, so you can expect to find all kinds of offers there. Start your shopping at the end where the Floridita Bar Restaurant sits. On that corner, you will find a souvenir store and three bookstores. Printed maps are vital in a country without a lot of internet access, so if you need one, you can buy one here. Advancing down Obispo, you will find different houses that serve as small shops. There are also other bookstores; stores that sell more expensive items (jewelry, large sculptures, artisanal humidors, etc.); a midsize souvenir market; and a store that sells traditional Cuban outfits known as guayaberas.
Plaza de Armas (Arms Square) is a gathering point for antique sellers. Their offerings include old books and magazines, notes, coins, photographs, etc.—all of them original items that can be 30 to 100 years old, with some even older. A good amount of what they sell is socialist paraphernalia from Cuba’s Soviet years: old stamps, postcards, and pins celebrating the victories and anniversaries of the USSR, images of Karl Marx and Lenin, etc. Going further back in time, they also have items from the early 20th century—from personal items to bracelets and flags of the Fidel Castro movement before 1959—and even some from the late 19th century. Although some unique pieces will be naturally very expensive, you can still get some minor treats for under $10, especially pins and printed materials from the 1980s.
In the streets leading to the Old Square, you will find numerous living rooms turned into small souvenir stores. There are plenty of them on the streets of Teniente Rey and Oficios. The selection here is more limited than at Almacenes San Jose, but some of the shops are run by the very people creating some of the arts and crafts for sale. It’s not uncommon to see some of them working on their drawings or knitting during their breaks.
Many emerging artists, photographers, and art history students and graduates sometimes gather at Paseo del Prado (the promenade that connects Parque Central with Malecon in Old Havana) to sell their work, which is both a self-promotion strategy and a way to make some money. Some of them rent studios or rooms nearby, and Prado is the most convenient place to get the attention of tourists. On weekends, the area also serves as a meeting point for knitting and sewing clubs, where participants exchange tips and try to sell their products to the passersby. It’s a good place to buy unique pieces and contribute to the livelihood of young artists and retired women in the process.
If for any reason you don’t have the chance to do your shopping in Old Havana—and by all means try to—you will find some options at the Habana Libre Hotel and surrounding areas in Vedado. Different stores at the hotel sell Cuban cigars, rum, and arts and crafts, while private stores on L and 25th Streets will also have a good deal of paintings, wood sculptures, traditional musical instruments, books, bags, and other items.
One of the oldest arts and crafts markets in the business, Feria de la Rampa (La Rampa Fair) is a small island of souvenir stands on 23rd Street in Vedado. Products here are the same that you will find in similar markets in Obispo and Avenida del Puerto, including paintings, sculptures, jewelry, hats and clothes, and small trinkets.
ArteHabana is a good store to buy gifts that are a little different from what’s available in most places. Run by FCBC, a company dealing in artsy products, it is a midsize department store selling jewelry, clothes, and ceramics by Cuban designers. It is only a couple of blocks away from Parque Central. On the ground floor, there’s a bookstore, a music store selling albums and musical instruments, and a store that sells mugs, coffee sets, shower curtains, umbrellas, towels and other products illustrated with the works of Cuba’s most famous painters, including Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, Roberto Fabelo, and many others.
If you are on a very tight budget and you still want to get some gifts, Fin de Siglo is a good place to save some dollars. What was once a very popular store in the 1950s, Fin de Siglo is an ample building that is currently leased to dozens of merchants whose clientele are mostly Cubans, and many sell arts and crafts. The place may feel a little crowded, hot and noisy at times, but prices will be lower here than in the tourist areas.
Casa del Habano is not a place but rather a chain of stores that sell cigars all over Havana and beyond. The only places selling authentic Cuban cigars are these stores and those at the cigar factories. There are a number of factories in Havana, including Partagas (behind the Capitol Building), Tabacuba, and X (Vedado), Centro Habana. Hotels like the National Hotel, Habana Libre, Cohiba, and Melia Habana also house official stores.